Tuesday, July 5, 2011

DeLand's Cards Have Superiority

I like Honda cars.

I was an early convert.  We had been a Ford family with the exception of a brief fling with a Renault when my brother and I were young children.  My dad was not one to experiment.  When he found something he liked, he teneded to stay with it and so we went through a series of Ford station wagons.  And when we experienced our first oil shock, he bought a Pinto wagon for my mother.  Always wagons and always with the genuine immitation wood paneling on the side panels.

I don't remember what accounted for the abboration that was the Honda.  I just know that with the arrival of that hatchback, the parade of woodies was broken.

What impressed me about the Honda was that when I drove it every button seemed to be placed where you would intuitively look for it.  Not only did the car handle well and have some gitty-up in its get-along, but it appeared to have been designed by drivers.  They appeared to have thought of everything.

I share that little piece of my motoring past because I appreciate the difference it makes when product developers consider a comprehensive solution to a problem rather than a small subset.  It's the difference between retrofitting an air conditioner into a classic car and designing a car from the ground up to include air conditioning.  In a retrofit, both the car and the add-on system have to be bent to meet the needs of the other.

I have perhaps exhausted the level of my authority to write about cars, but I wanted to make a point about good design.  You can see this on Antiques Roadshow all the time when someone gets caught with a reproduction.  What distinguishes the fakes is the approximation of detail, the vague impressions where the original would have had patiently carved detail.

Watch the full episode. See more Antiques Roadshow.

It doesn't matter what the product is, the difference between good design and great design is in the details.  You know when a product does what you want it to do and when it doesn't.  You know when it fits your process--whatever that might be--and when you have to adapt your process to fit the product.

As mentioned elsewhere, I began my passion for magic by resorting to the shortcuts provided by self-working tricks.  I succumbed to come-ons like those of Marshall Brodien who intoned in his classic TV pitch that "magic was easy once you know the secret."

The cards were so smart that they did all the work for you.

If that were only true.

Over the years, I have purchased many decks of TV Magic Cards--some on purpose and some because I didn't understand that it was the same product sold under a different name.  Almost all of them come with an intricately folded sheet of instructions containing a variety of tricks with which one can "amaze" one's friends.  The decks--properly called Svengali decks--are ideal for television because they are easy to work and they look like real magic.  In real life, however, they cannot be examined by the spectator and so the performer must always be mindful of the enquiring hands.  It is ironic that these decks are sold to young magicians and yet should not be used to entertain young audiences unless by an experienced performer.

Earlier this year, I purchased a DVD by magician Oz Pearlman all about the deck and even though I was familiar with the secret and had these decks all over my house, I was stunned to see him demonstrate how you could successfully riffle shuffle the cards.  It's a simple thing to do--once you know the secret--but it is very convincing in putting over that these are "perfectly ordinary cards."

My big fear as a performer was, and is, getting caught by the audience.  The last thing I want is to be doing my "miracles" with the "perfectly ordinary" cards and have someone pick a card they shouldn't, or see something up my sleeve.  What I saw in the Pearlman DVD that I had not seen before was some of the subtleties that would keep the audience focused on the performer and not their props, on the story and not the procedures.  Whereas  my style as a performer is pretty defensive, I saw that it was possible to "play offense" not by beating your audience, but by keeping them psychologically off-balance.  That little bit of information--even though it came about forty years too late--was worth knowing and worth the price of the DVD and yet another Svengali deck.

From shop.zauberparadies.com.
All of this is mere prologue to a discussion of DeLand's Automatic Cards.

The first thing you notice about these cards is how carefully they were designed.  It seems certain that the intent was to design a utility pack of cards that would suit the needs of the working performer.  Special features are built into the manufacturing of the cards that enable the performer to tell the location of any card at any moment, to locate a selected card blindfolded, to immediately identify a selected card, and much more.  The performer can have the spectator cut the cards into two piles and tell immediately how many cards are in each half.

It's like the Swiss Army knife of trick decks.

I don't know enough about the history of the deck--although there is shortly to be published a new book about DeLand and his many contributions to magic--but I know in my own life I have seen it more typically in toy stores than magic shops.  It's sold to "civilians" and not to magicians and, perhaps for that reason, for many years not much attention was paid to the details.  Like the weathervane, it was intended to convey the impression of magic without having the underlying utility.

I bought my first DeLand deck many years ago and, as soon as I skimmed the directions, recognized that I couldn't use it.  Not because it wasn't useful, but because of the precision of its design, I would be afraid of messing it up.  I didn't even want to shuffle it.

I never performed a trick with it, but I have never forgotten it.  Like the Honda, I was impressed by the thoughtful design.  And like the Svengali deck, I don't think I understood its many subtleties until many, many years later.  (I bet you were thinking I couldn't tie this all together....)

About a year ago, I learned that the rights to the DeLand deck had been purchased from the S.S. Adams company--sellers of black soap, whoopee cushions and many inexpensive magic tricks--by Magic Makers, Inc in South Dakota and that they are now producing a high quality edition of the deck on the same stock used for the ubiquitous Bicycle decks made by the United States Playing Card Company.

I also learned only recently that DeLand ended his days in a mental health facility in Pennsylvania.  It's not relevant for any other reason that I am currently working for a mental health advocacy organization.

Needless to say, I bought a deck.  Still afraid to shuffle it, but still think it's a great idea and a beautiful design.

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